The Dictionary of Lost Words

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Modern Age

The Dictionary of Lost Words
Author: Williams, Pip
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Time Period: Modern Age
Time Frame: 1887-1928
Geographic Area: Europe
Country: Great Britain
Topics: WWI,Women's Suffrage
Genre: Fiction
Reading Age: Adult
Format: Novel
Published: 2021

World History > Modern Age > Women's Suffrage

In this “delightful debut” (Newsweek) based on actual events, as a team of male scholars compiles the first Oxford English Dictionary, one of their daughters decides to collect the “objectionable” words they omit.

“A marvelous fiction about the power of language to elevate or repress.”—Geraldine Brooks, New York Times bestselling author of People of the Book

Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the Scriptorium, a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Young Esme’s place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word bondmaid flutters beneath the table. She rescues the slip, and when she learns that the word means “slave girl,” she begins to collect other words that have been discarded or neglected by the dictionary men.

As she grows up, Esme realizes that words and meanings relating to women’s and common folks’ experiences often go unrecorded. And so she begins in earnest to search out words for her own dictionary: the Dictionary of Lost Words. To do so she must leave the sheltered world of the university and venture out to meet the people whose words will fill those pages.

Set during the height of the women’s suffrage movement and with the Great War looming, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men. Inspired by actual events, author Pip Williams has delved into the archives of the Oxford English Dictionary to tell this highly original story. The Dictionary of Lost Words is a delightful, lyrical, and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words and the power of language to shape the world.

Emily's Review

I thoroughly enjoyed this story. I've always loved dictionaries so reading about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary sounded like such a fascinating backdrop for a novel.

This story is about the contribution of women to the project in a time when very few women worked or could become scholars, and therefore got almost no recognition for their efforts in this project. We follow Esme, the daughter of one of the lexicographer's working on the project. She grows up in the Scriptorium (lovingly referred to as The Scrippy) and like her father, chooses to dedicate her life to words.

I loved the character of Esme. She is strong but quiet, as she fights to be a part of the Oxford English Dictionary in any way that she can. I didn't realize how much work went into creating a dictionary. I loved the concept of collecting women's words and making a place for them in a world dominated by men.

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